South Korean defense officials say the upcoming annual military drill with the United States will be the largest ever, a sign of growing tensions with North Korea over its recent tests of nuclear and ballistic missile weapons programs.
Defense Minister Han Min-koo said Thursday that about 15,000 U.S. troops will take part in the annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises when they begin next month, which is twice the number from last year. Yonhap news agency said Wednesday the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier John C. Stennis will take part in the annual drills, which Pyongyang always claims are preparation for a northward invasion.
South Korean intelligence officials have informed lawmakers that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ordered preparations for terror attacks on South Koreans.
A member of South Korea's ruling party told reporters Thursday the National Intelligence Service believes the attacks could target anti-North Korean activists, defectors and South Korean government officials.
Subways, shopping malls and power stations are also potential targets.
Four U.S. F-22 stealth fighters fly over Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016.
Officials also say talks with Washington have begun on deploying an advanced U.S. missile defense system, the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), despite strong opposition from China.
"The official announcement of the possibility of THAAD deployment is a defensive measure to counter increasing nuclear and missile threats by North Korea . It's not against any country in particular. We have been discussing these concerns on a number of occasions at various levels," said South Korea Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se.
Tensions have been growing on the Korean peninsula over the North's recent actions. In a speech before the National Assembly Tuesday, President Park Geun-hye pledged to take a more hardline approach towards the communist regime, aiming to convince it to either abandon its nuclear development program or face "regime collapse."
Four U.S. radar-evading fighter jets flew from Japan's Okinawa island to Seoul Wednesday in response to this month's long-range rocket launch, and a B-52 long-range bomber flew across the South last month after Pyongyang conducted its fourth nuclear test.